Aug 02

In My Humble Opinion

Face to face conversations with my next door teaching neighbor about going gradeless and helping students learn without worrying about covering enough curriculum to pass a standardized test has been helpful for me. I get to think deeply about my beliefs about how I think students learn best and about accountability and if I’m doing the best I can and what’s in the best interest for all or at least most of my students. I get to think through what I’m doing by talking to her every now and then to discuss our 6th graders since I teach her homeroom kids Science (I have all 6th graders for Science).

My colleague is my next door neighbor, part of my PLC and in the WA STEM Grant team, so besides talking often we also get to work together on different projects throughout the year every year. Towards the end of this past school year she gave me an article she read so that we could discuss it but we were so busy that we never got to talk about it. Since we’re off doing our own things this summer I thought I’d respond to the article here. The article, High poverty but high hopes: West Seattle Elementary School making progress, shares some ideas of what people have come to equate with success in schools. My responses here are my opinions and I must say that many of my beliefs have changed radically in the two years since I joined Twitter so my opinions here are different than they were even three years ago (and I’ve been teaching next to my colleague for the past 12 years)!

The article’s focus: how a school is “improving” by boosting test scores. (In My Humble Opinion – IMHO: barf! Why? Because that means that those poor kids are being exposed to “intense” test prep to help them “boost” those test scores. And what are they missing out on because of that test prep?)

“As West Seattle Elementary in Seattle labors through its first year of an intense federal program aimed at boosting its persistently low test scores, there are both challenges and signs that the school is on the right track to become a rarity in education: a high-achieving, high-poverty school.”

This is how the article opens. Once I read that I wondered what they meant by a “high-achieving” school? Boosting test scores.

“Seven months into the school year, the two-story brick school in West Seattle’s High Point neighborhood is a much calmer place, with fewer fights and stricter rules. Test scores are up, especially in math, where the school’s overall improvement from last spring to this winter was greater than at any other elementary in the city.”

What can one say about that? At face value it sounds great. Kids must be learning more math because their math scores are improving. It’s an elementary school and if kids can do basic math and the tests show that, meaning that they are not all multiple choice, then it might just be a good thing. In a recent Twitter conversation I was wondering how much teaching of basic facts, lower Bloom’s activities, is necessary for kids to be able to learn deeply. I’m still not sure but the people I was tweeting with agreed that some teaching of basic skills is necessary especially at the lower grades. IMHO since kids learn differently and will acquire certain math skills at different times we have to be able to provide kids with what they need. From my experience I don’t think tracking is the best way to do this but in a classroom with many different levels of understanding it is difficult to differentiate without resources. So either way we are left with kids needing some lower Bloom’s activities and some teaching, modeling, or guiding them to use their basic skills and content knowledge to do something that will require critical thinking and hopefully deeper learning. Now how can we expect all kids to be learning the same thing at the same time and pass those standardized tests? We can’t so there’s where I start to disagree, IMHO. Now as for the school being a calmer place with fewer fights, that’s great. But over the last two years of learning from some incredible educators all over the world I’ve come to see that there are schools out there with safe school climate that do so without rewards and punishments. Is West Seattle Elementary calming their students without rewards and punishments? No. (More on this later.)

“Still, it’s clear that West Seattle is just getting started in its struggle to attain what is still a rare distinction: becoming a high-achieving, high-poverty school. Despite the test-score improvements, many students have a long way to go before their academic skills are where they should be.”

At least it is stated here that improving test scores doesn’t mean students have the academic skills they need. With this I totally agree, IMHO.

“And nothing the school does will help if students miss class too often. ‘If the kids aren’t here, it doesn’t matter what you do, they’re not learning,’ Sacco said. ‘They need to be here.'”

Something else the school is working on is to get students to come to school. I’d like to believe that if a kid can’t be physically in class that he or she should still be able to participate in some way. Technology makes blended learning possible (blended = a mix of face-to-face and online learning experiences), but I assume that since this is a school of high poverty that technology is not available to all. So what it boils down to is that if students aren’t in school they aren’t learning what the kids in their classes are learning (whether that learning is worthwhile or not, and, IMHO, test prep is NOT worthwhile). Without their peer’s support and their teacher’s help is it difficult to progress? I don’t know but until the model of the four walls, brick and mortar, classroom changes then our students need to be there physically to learn with their peers (which works best if collaborative activities are going on). If you look at it from a teacher’s point of view, we believe that our students’ learning is our responsibility, whether to teach them or to help them become independent learners. So if we feel that our students aren’t learning then we do whatever we can or whatever we are pressured to do. Unfortunately our successes are being measured by how well our students do on standardized tests, which is a very narrow view of what our students are learning and how much they are growing so we are constantly being made to feel that we are letting our students down. And on top of that often test scores are used to compare different sets of students! How can you compare last year’s kids to this year’s kids?!? And even if you are comparing this year’s kids to how they did last year, it’s only a one shot, mostly bubbling test, which IMHO is not worth much. So if we prepare our students to do well on a standardized test we feel good if they score well but we didn’t do them any favors to prepare them for the 21st century. On the other hand, if we do what we can to prepare our students for the 21st century and try to help them become life long learners and they don’t score well on the tests we may feel good about ourselves but everyone else thinks we failed the students, them, and our whole country! IMHO

“Improving the school’s climate has been the biggest success so far. ‘We’re able to learn more. The rules are working,’ said fifth-grader Arlondra Rivera, whose test scores have shot up this year from average to above average. Last year ‘you could get away with anything,’ said another fifth-grader. ‘Even if you beat someone up, you could go on field trips.'”

Improving school climate is an excellent goal for schools. These students, as many students, parents and teachers have been taught, believe that in order for all kids to behave there have to be punishments as in not getting to go on a field trip (I’ve done that. And at the time I thought it was the right thing to do. Not anymore!). IMHO this is sad. The underlying belief there is that students will NOT learn from their mistakes unless there is an added consequence. Doesn’t the added consequence take the focus away from the poor choice and make it about the punishment? I believe that all students can learn from their mistakes and that we can discuss bad choices and that I can help students make good choices, but if there are kids in my class who are not allowed to learn because of the behavior of a few I start to rely on consequences. This is a continuing struggle and I’ve used Love & Logic and I recently read Lost at School so I’ve been trying Collaborative Problem Solving. But if the school climate isn’t safe or conducive to learning then we suffer and rewards and punishments prevail no matter what I do in my class. This, I believe, is a whole school issue. IMHO

“One big focus: making clear to students what’s expected and rewarding them for achieving it. Each teacher, for example, has a stack of “Husky Bucks” to give students for working hard, for kindness, for doing the right thing.”

Now this is something I’ve never been able to do. It never felt right to me to reward my students for things they were supposed to be doing anyway. An elementary principal, Chris Wejr, wrote a blog that says it well. These Husky Bucks may work in the moment but what happens when there are no Husky Bucks? Kids will not do the things the Husky Bucks rewarded and yet those are things they should be doing! It’s counter productive to choose a strategy that works short term at the expense of longer lasting change. IMHO this is a practice that should change. Sure, it will take longer to get all students to make better choices but at least when it does happen it will be lasting changes in those kids. I’d rather have kids work, learn, treat each other well, and do nice things becasue they want to rather than to get an award, certificate, or candy bar. And I know we all want this, I’m not saying that those teachers who use rewards are consciously looking to turn kids off to those things, but I didn’t know that was what happened when we reward until I read people like Alfie Kohn and Dan Pink.

“Each month, Resendez, who came to West Seattle this year from nearby Highland Park Elementary, sends her fifth-graders home with a “goal” sheet outlining behavior and academic expectations that both the student and parents sign. And four or five times a day, she has the kids rate their own behavior.”

Stop right there and sounds like a good practice. Kids should be choosing and setting their own goals. Parents should totally be included. And kids should be rating their own behavior (as long as that doesn’t mean reducing their actions to numbers or marks, kids can reflect on their behavior by writing or blogging). IMHO

“There is no punishment for losing points — except not getting invited to a short, extra recess or getting a small treat at the end of each month. Mostly, Resendez says, the point system helps students reflect on how they’re doing — especially those who don’t have a parent or other adult at home keeping close tabs on them. And it rewards the many students who quietly and regularly complete all their work.”

They say there is “no punishment for losing points,” oh yeah, “except” for not getting to have fun or get a treat that the “good” kids are getting. This is pure behaviorism, using rewards and punishments to coerce children into behaving a certain way. IMHO this is embarrassing. I think the point system helps those kids keep track of what they will be getting or losing instead of what they should be learning about themselves and the way they learn. Those who get rejoice in what they got while those who don’t get become bitter at the system. This next part illustrates perfectly how silly this system truly is.

“If students try to give themselves more points than they deserve, they can be challenged, as Resendez did recently when one boy tried to slide by with a 49 out of 50.

“I really think it should be 45 or 44,” Resendez said.

“Forty-six,” the student said.

“Forty-five,” Resendez insisted.

The rest of the class laughed.”

And I know exactly why they laughed! This whole part is completely laughable, IMHO. I mean really? What exactly is the difference between the 49 the boy originally chose and the 45 Resendez finally haggled the boy down to? Four points. What do those four points mean? Do they mean that the boy worked four times less than he would have or could have? Who can possibly know that? Or is it in comparison to the boy’s classmates? If so, what good is it to rate the boy against other kids who have different talents and personalities? I don’t see how this does any service to the kids mentioned earlier who have little parent involvement at home.

“end-of-year tests get under way — the last of the school year’s Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) exams, which are mandated by the district, plus state tests in reading, math, writing and science.”

Finally we see exactly what they meant by high-achieving. By the looks of things the only subjects that are tested, reading, math, writing, and science, would become the only subjects that require test prep teaching. This typically would or could mean that other subjects are de-emphasized. Hard and fast rule? No, but it’s what happens when you focus so much energy on a few subjects.

“Resendez and other teachers worry whether students are ready — especially for the state test’s multistep questions, which trip up a lot of them. Starting next year, test scores will become part of how the teachers are evaluated. Resendez recently spent a full day on practice questions, showing students how many of them gave good answers on some questions yet wouldn’t have earned any points because they didn’t follow the instructions exactly.”

You know, I’ve done this. I am guilty of doing what Resendez did. In my defense though I never felt comfortable spending more than one to three class periods a year on test prep. Last year I took two of my five classes, the only 8th grade classes I had, to the computer lab one day to see what the Science test looked like since it was their first year taking the WA state standardized test online and I was their only Science teacher. But that was it. One period all year spent on test prep out of my normal class procedure. Of course they had three tests to take so they lost three more days of normal class to take tests. The practice and learning that goes on during test prep sessions are that kids learn how to take tests. How to read test questions. How to follow test directions. That’s it. And I’ve heard many educators challenge this status quo by asking how many of us adults out of school use those test-taking skills in our daily lives and in our jobs and careers? I have to say I find myself trying to follow directions on recipes or to assemble a piece of furniture in my life and I really don’t ever take tests. So IMHO test taking is not a priority for me and I don’t want my children to waste their education practicing for a state mandated test. What would I prefer my own children do in school or get out school? I want my children to explore and learn new things. To hopefully find things they are passionate about and get to delve deeper into those subjects and topics. I want them to develop of love of learning and to be happy knowing that learning is something they will do all time for the rest of their lives. I want them to see school as a happy, safe place to take risks and challenge their own and others’ beliefs and understandings. I want my children to learn how to use technologies and skills that they will be using their whole lives or at least that they can easily bounce off of to whatever they will need to be happy in their chosen futures. Does any of this sound like high stakes testing? No. IMHO

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  1. Wow… you have touched on so many issues of how we “achieve success” in some schools – through test prep, rewards, punishments. In the end, it is published that the school is doing great things; the sad part is the harm that is actually taking place.

    Personally… I could not agree more with your humble opinion.

  1. […] Here’s my part of the conversation we had started near the end of school a couple of months ago: In My Humble Opinion […]

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